The Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have taken an official step towards rescinding the Obama administration's Waters of the U.S. regulation, also known as the Clean Water Rule. The decision has been hailed by sectors of the agriculture industry but has ignited alarm amongst environmentalists.
The EPA and USACE have filed a proposal to dismantle the WOTUS rule and implement a new interpretation of the Clean Water Act, WDAY reports.
The proposal could have a seismic impact on the drinking water for millions of Americans while loosening a regulatory burden on farmers and miners.
"When the Clean Water and Clean Air Act were passed in the 1970s, there was a belief that the states should be an active partner in making sure that we have clear objectives in air and water and working together to achieve those good outcomes," EPA administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement. "But there was also this attitude that said we can grow jobs, grow our economy and protect our environment."
The CWA was signed into law in 1972, granting the EPA and USACE regulatory authority over U.S. waters. The original law did not clearly define the scope of both agencies' jurisdiction, resulting in legal disputes over ensuing decades. In 2015, the Obama administration sought to clarify that jurisdiction by implementing the WOTUS rule, according to the Washington Post.
The Clean Water Rule relied on an interpretation of "navigable waters" written by Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. The rule broadly expanded the scope of EPA and USACE jurisdiction to cover the drinking water of roughly 117 million Americans, or a third of the U.S. population, The Guardian reports.
On Feb. 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order directing EPA to review and ultimately dismantle the WOTUS rule.
"EPA's so-called Waters of the U.S. rule is one of the worst examples of federal regulation," Trump said during the signing ceremony, according to the Washington Times. "It has truly run amok ... The EPA decided that navigable waters can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer's land, or any place else they decide, right? It was a massive power grab."
Repealing the WOTUS rule would make the drinking water for those millions of Americans no longer subject to federal regulation, pending the Trump administration's replacement rule. The decision was praised by agriculture business leaders.
"The signal from the administration clearly is that they understand that the rule is not practical, it is not helpful and they need to not enforce it," said CEO Daren Coppock of the Agricultural Retailers Association.
GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota praised the EPA, saying that Pruitt and his team "listened to the concerns of rural America and are taking steps to repeal this burdensome rule."
Pruitt announced that his agency would wait 30 days for public input before fully repealing the WOTUS rule. On July 6, 18 environmental groups signed a letter urging the EPA administrator to extend that timeline, Common Dreams reports.
"Your planned 30-day comment period disregards the more than one million people who participated in the development of [the WOTUS] rule and is a grossly inadequate amount of time for stakeholders to meaningfully engage in this rulemaking process," the letter stated. The groups urged Pruitt to "allow for no fewer than six months to comment."
On July 7, the Sierra Club's deputy legislative director for land and water, Dalal Aboulhosn, released a statement blasting the Trump administration's move to dismantle the WOTUS rule, accusing that Pruitt had twisted an economic report to justify the decision.
"The American people count on the EPA to keep our drinking water safe, and this disregard for independent science is a disservice to all of our families," Aboulhosn said. "The Clean Water Act makes it plain that science should lead policy, not the other way around, and Pruitt's actions this week shows that he doesn't care about either."